Self-confessed tree-hugging petrolhead Dale Vince wants to help reshape both our roads and our energy markets.
Dale Vince has a vision. Actually he has quite a few visions. In fact, he seems to have so many projects on the go that you wonder how he manages to find time to run Britain’s most prominent renewable energy supplier. But the founder of Ecotricity is currently focused on building a national network of electric vehicle (EV) fast chargers — the first in the world, he claims.
Having started just outside London, the network has just reached Leeds and, by the end of next year, is scheduled to include fast chargers at 120 motorway services, enabling electric-car drivers to get all the way from Exeter to Edinburgh. So why is an energy supplier building charging stations? Or designing domestic wind turbines? Or an electric sports car?
‘The starting place was that I wanted a car that was greener,’ explains Vince, casting his mind back around six years to when Ecotricity had already been operating for more than a decade. ‘I liked fast cars and thought it was about time I got one that was electric and you couldn’t buy one in the world back then. So I thought I’d make one and that was the beginning of a journey that led to the Nemesis electric super car.’
This attempt to ‘reconcile the tree hugger and the petrolhead’ in Vince become a mission to ‘smash the stereotype of electric cars looking like Noddy cars’, and demonstrate EV technology at a time when none of the major manufacturers was yet marketing their own model (and the Tesla Roadster was still a year away from release).
With part funding from the Technology Strategy Board, the Nemesis team rebuilt a second-hand Lotus Exige purchased on eBay, lengthening the chassis by 90mm and fitting 96 lithium-ion polymer cells, two brushless motors and a new transmission. The result was a car that last year broke the UK electric land-speed record, reaching an average speed of 151mph.
By then, the big manufacturers had caught up. But the project had also led Vince to think more about the barriers to EV ownership and so he developed the idea of an ‘Electric Highway’ of fast charging points along the motorways. Unlike the government’s charging station rollout schemes that focus on particular cities or regions, Ecotricity’s plan was to join the dots between existing infrastructure.
‘We’re trying to bring the electric car revolution we think Britain needs’
‘Some 99 per cent of all journeys are less than 100 miles in Britain,’ says Vince. ‘That led us to think that it’s not towns and cities that need charging stations, or supermarket car parks, but actually the motorways where people are making long journeys. That, coupled with the statistic that 70 per cent of people have access to off-street parking, which means off-street charging, led us to the Highway.’
So far the charging points are free to use and are more about encouraging EV take-up than turning a profit. Ecotricity is launching a discounted tariff for its customers who charge up EVs at home. But that’s not to suggest Vince isn’t looking for new business opportunities.
‘If the rates of take-up projected for electric vehicles — around 1.5m by 2020 — are anywhere near accurate there should be big demand on the motorways for charging,’ he says. ‘We’re trying to bring the electric car revolution we think Britain needs, driven by a desire for sustainability in all we do. We tend to do things we believe in and if it turn into a business, that’s all well and good.’
This desire for sustainability runs deep in Vince, who spent 10 years as a ‘New Age’ traveller, looking for an alternative way to live. His story is well documented, if not well known, and the origins of Ecotricity lie in his attempts to generate his own power from the wind while living in a converted ex-military vehicle.
Despite having dropped out of school aged 15, he made money mending vehicles and building small wind turbines for like-minded enthusiasts. With the energy market starting to liberalise, he took the opportunity to set up larger turbines to produce green electricity for the grid. Today, Ecotricity has 56MW of wind and solar-generating capacity serving 65,000 homes, with all the company’s profit invested in new generation capacity — it claims to invest more money per customer than all other UK energy firms put together.
But Vince’s ambitions don’t stop there. He’s never quite given up on his idea of selling small wind turbines and Ecotricity is developing a horizontal-axis device known as the ‘Urbine’ to sell to small businesses, farmers, and to power the Electric Highway. The project was halted by the financial crash but Vince revived it 12 months ago, this time bringing in outside expertise, and is now hoping for accreditation for feed-in-tariffs following further tests.
The company is also investing in and collaborating on two wave-energy devices: the Snapper (recipient of The Engineer’s 2011 Marine Innovation Award), which uses magnets and springs to enhance a linear generator; and the Searaser, which pumps pressurised water ashore where it can power a turbine.
‘The hardest job you can imagine in the world of energy is making electricity under water,’ says Vince. ‘It doesn’t get more expensive than to make or maintain a marine turbine. That’s where Searaser wins. It’s the simplest of devices and I think that’s key to its likely success because it’s all about the cost of energy.’
He’s right about the importance of the cost of energy. It’s one reason why so many people still doubt renewables can really be a viable alternative to our current generating capacity. Ecotricity’s now claims it undercuts the standard tariffs of the ‘Big Six’ energy firms, but the prices can be well above the cheapest options available to those looking to switch. And Vince admits the company has to appeal to its customers’ environmental motivations and desire for good service.
‘People who think wind energy is expensive are not even looking at nuclear’
But he still believes the figures are in his favour and that the nature of the energy market is more costly to consumers than renewable investment. He’s been critical of the private, foreign ownership of the UK’s electricity distribution firms that he says operate a monopoly. And just before The Engineer went to press, in the wake of Labour’s call for an energy price freeze, he called for increased regulation or even nationalisation of energy suppliers — despite being the sole shareholder of one of those companies.
‘The cost of supporting onshore wind energy in Britain last year was £5 per household,’ he says. ‘By contrast, people’s energy bills went up £150 in same period because of the fluctuating price of gas on the international energy market. It didn’t become more expensive to extract gas; it’s just a function of the market that speculators and energy brokers were able to make big profits from the same basic resource.
‘Nuclear energy is worth considering as well. The current fleet that needs to be retired cost £50bn of public money to build and will cost £120bn to decommission. That’s £5,000 per household. It’ll take wind energy 1,000 years to be at the same cost equivalent per household. So I would say to people who think wind energy is expensive they’re not even looking at nuclear, which has just cost incredible sums and is going to be a burden for use and future generations for years to come.’
One thing nuclear does give us that renewables doesn’t is a controllable baseload. ‘There’s no denying wind is intermittent but there are ways to deal with that,’ he replies. ‘We simply need to be more intelligent in the way we use power. We can make a big difference to variability problem just by having a smarter grid. It’s also where our Black Box comes in.’
There are scant few details about this mysterious Black Box on Ecotricity’s website. It turns out to be a domestic inverter and battery system that can save electricity at times of surplus generation and releasing it during peak consumption hours, helping to balance the supply and demand, reduce the need for extra capacity and making the grid more efficient.
‘It’s about changing the way households use energy without requiring behavioural change, which we think always has a short-lived impact,’ says Vince. ‘We’ve modelled the impact on the national grid and we believe if every household in Britain had one we would need 15 per cent less generating capacity. That’s equivalent to the current nuclear contribution so it would make a massive contribution to the energy gap we perceive to be coming.’
Vince likes to solve problems. It’s the same reason why he isn’t planning a Nemesis 2. And why he’s quietly but steadfastly positive in the face of the huge difficulties involved with decarbonising our energy system.
‘I like a challenge,’ he admits. ‘If this was easy we wouldn’t be needed here and we’d be doing something else.’
Dale Vince, CEO, Ecotricity
- 1977 Dropped out of school aged 15
- 1980s Spent a decade as a ‘New Age’ traveller
- 1995 Founded the Renewable Energy Company
- 1996 Built first windmill in Gloucestershire and started supplying “green electricity”
- 1997 Attended Kyoto Summit
- 2001 Launched Britain’s first merchant wind to power factories directly on site
- 2003 Started supplying domestic customers
- 2010 Started supplying the first UK “green gas” tariff
- 2011 Launched the Electric Highway, Britain’s first national electric vehicle charging network
- 2012 Saw Ecotricity’s electric supercar, Nemesis, break the British electric land speed record
- 2013 Passed 70,000 customers and received planning permission to build Ecotricity’s biggest windfarm with 22 turbines